I’m a little afraid of short stories. What I crave most in fiction is depth, characterization, richly drawn and fully fleshed-out people and places — not halved and truncated stories of people about whom I will ultimately feel nothing, if only because I never really got a chance to know them.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s stunning Interpreter of Maladies is seriously working to change my opinion.
I don’t know what took me so long to pick up this book, exactly; Lahiri’s novel The Namesake is probably my favorite book of all time. Seriously. It was the first book I set down after reading and thought, “If I’m going to be a writer, this is what I have to be. How can I be this?” And not to put a damper on my dreams, but I don’t think anyone could write like Lahiri — simultaneously combining themes of love, family, respect, devotion, rebellion, fear, desperation, loneliness and hope in, oh, twenty pages or so.
I won’t wax poetic for the entire review, I promise. The basics? Interpreter of Maladies is comprised of nine individual short stories, all dealing with similar themes (mentioned above) and centering around the quest for love, acceptance and family. All of the characters center around themes of immigration; what it means to be “Indian” (as opposed to Bengali, American, etc.); ideas of leaving behind the past in order to form a new identity in the present; how it is that we love and lose each other. And so forth. We are greeted by a variety of narrators — some telling the story themselves, some with omniscient narrators weaving the tale apart from the crowd.
Each story bears the commonality of the experience, to me, of loving someone from afar: whether because you are from different countries and cultures, speak different languages, are of a different faith, have different values or are just . . . entirely different people. Of all the stories, I found “Sexy” and “When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine” to be the most moving. But that’s like choosing a favorite child — each story is special, unique and complex in its own way. It’s impossible to just pick one.
And from the first few sentences of each narrative, we’re introduced to people who seem just as tangible as if they were standing in front of me by a taxi or in a living room or across a restaurant. I eagerly flipped through the pages, wondering who I would meet next. Each tale was an adventure. Would we be in New England, New York City, India — in a taxi, at a monument, in a living room, raking leaves in the yard? I felt an immediate connection with each of the story’s characters, and felt sad and nostalgic by the time I reached the final page of “The Third and Final Continent.” It made me want to read The Namesake all over again. And perhaps I will.
Pick up this book. I’m pretty sure this is why I read literature.
5 out of 5!